Award-winning Danish photographer Joachim Ladefoged has worked as a professional photographer since 1991 and has been a member of the international VII Photo Agency since 2004. When he’s not doing dramatic portraits or photo essays for magazines including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Newsweek and TIME, or advertising jobs, he focuses on personal projects.
In 2000, he published his first book, Albanians, about the turbulent life of the Albanians between 1997-1999. At VII, he has contributed to three major book projects, Tsunami: A Document of Devastation, Forgotten War: Democratic Republic of the Congo and the recently released Questions Without Answers (Phaidon), featuring photo essays from 11 of the pioneering photo agency’s members. In February 2008, Ladefoged released his second book Mirror (Ajour), an unusual look at the world of bodybuilding that features color portraits and black-and-white action shots from competitions in Scandinavia in which he uses light to delineate these human sculptures.
What becomes obvious when perusing the myriad publications that bear his photo credit is that Ladefoged has a remarkably diverse collection of photo essays and portraits on a wide array of subject matter. Whatever is in front of his lens, however, is always captured with the same intensity of a critical photojournalist’s eye.
DPP: How did your wide-ranging approach to photography come about?
Joachim Ladefoged: Shooting the same thing all the time bores me. I come from a newspaper background where you have to cover a variety of assignments. I got an internship when I was 21 at a local newspaper named Ârhus Stiftstidende shooting up to six assignments a day—portraits, reportage, soccer every weekend, handball in the winter. But it started before that. When I was 16, I developed arthritis. I had wanted to become a soccer player and was living at a sports school. So when I got ill, I got a camera and started taking pictures from a wheelchair of the sports that I couldn’t do anymore. After a year with the camera, I found that this is what I wanted to do with my life.
DPP: Did you then study photography formally?
Ladefoged: No, but in Denmark, we have these folk schools, and I had a teacher who introduced me to the work of all these great Magnum photographers—Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa—so I got interested in reportage. My mother was very socially orientated so I got interested in telling stories with my camera about social issues. My dream was to become a Magnum photographer, but I was 21 and still sick. I could never have dreamt that I would be where I am these days, but I started to get better very slowly using herbal medicine.
DPP: How did you go from shooting for a local newspaper to where you are now?
Ladefoged: By starting to shoot my own stuff, not just local newspaper assignments. I moved on by coming up with my own reportage ideas. I started by doing a photo essay on local prostitutes. I went down to their little place in a basement shooting two times a week for half a year. This was in 1992. I knew this was the way I wanted to go, doing bigger stories in a much more in-depth and personal way. I also did a self-assignment on a wagon camp for homeless people living in Berlin over a two-year period.
DPP: These projects gave you a portfolio more in line with your photographic aspirations.
Ladefoged: It helped me move on to Politiken, the best national newspaper in Denmark. They started sending me out into the world on assignments to do longer stories, like going to Russia to cover the elections and Albania during the unrest there and staying for a week. This amount of time on one story was a luxury for me. This was a step in the right direction, but I still had daily deadlines. Even if I were in Albania, I would have to send back photographs every day.
DPP: Your work in Albania exposed your photography to the world.
Ladefoged: I revisited Albania twice at my own expense, including in 1997 when the riots started down there. Because of this story, I ended up being the first Dane to win the World Press Photo Contest. It showed me that the longer I stayed on a story, the better the results would be.
DPP: After winning the most important award in photojournalism, what steps did you take to move your career forward?
Ladefoged: I decided to leave Politiken and become freelance, then used my connections from the World Press Photo to join an agency in London. Then two years later, I joined Magnum.
DPP: You made your dream come true in a relatively short time.
Ladefoged: I had joined Magnum based on my black-and-white story from Albania. Then, after two years, I showed a totally different body of work. Some members were bothered by that. You know when you join Magnum that things might not work out, and it didn’t. Some photographers were forming VII, and they asked me to come onboard. I was very honest with them, saying I wasn’t a war photographer anymore. Because I had dealt with rheumatism, I knew I wasn’t bulletproof. I was 30, my wife and I decided we wanted to have a child, so I decided to never shoot war again. We now have three children.
DPP: But you continue to cover intense situations.
Ladefoged: I wouldn’t call it intense, at least not compared to working in a war zone. In 1996, when the Taliban took Kabul, I got caught in the crossfire there. That was intense. I’m still shooting strong reportage stories with VII in places such as the Congo and Sri Lanka.
DPP: Who have been your major photographic influences?
Ladefoged: When I became aware of photography outside of Denmark, I started looking at Gilles Peress and the way he shot Telex Iran. So I like to say that I’m inspired by the artistry of Peress, the humanity of Eugene Richards and the balls of Jim Nachtwey. I think I’m a mix between those guys, as well as Alex Webb because of his use of color and hard shadows.
DPP: How did one of your most well-known series, and one that ended up in a book Mirror, come about?
Ladefoged: The year I joined Magnum, I had to come up with new ideas. I went to the Danish championships for bodybuilders and got permission to shoot backstage. Since I was freelance, I went back to Politiken and pitched them the story about bodies and narcissism and voyeurism, not a story about who was the best bodybuilder. I was looking for this more weird or abstract world backstage behind the scenes. They agreed. After three years of shooting at the event, I felt I wasn’t really moving on, so I started doing color portraits. Between portraits, I started shooting some video and ended up asking for and getting the money from the Danish Film Institute to do a film.
DPP: It’s interesting that one of your earliest projects, on prostitution, involved nudity and the body, and then you did the series on bodybuilders.
Ladefoged: Since I was so into sports when I was young, I think that stories about the body are very important to me. It took me eight years to finish this project because the Danish championships take place once a year.
DPP: Because of your love of sports and, in particular, soccer, it must have been a great assignment for you to photograph Lionel Messi for Time magazine. How did you shoot it?
Ladefoged: I knew I would have very little time with him. I arrived in Barcelona and rented strobes and bought white and black backgrounds. My assistant and I set up a little studio in a room at the training compound. When he came in, we were ready to go.
Shooting the same thing all the time bores me. I come from a newspaper background where you have to cover a variety of assignments.
DPP: How did you learn to work with strobes?
Ladefoged: We used strobes very little at the newspapers. When I became a freelance photographer, I decided to teach myself because I wanted to be more of a magazine photographer. Now I work with Profoto. My Mirror series portraits were made with strobes. The black-and-white reportage images for the series were made with an off-camera handheld flash.
DPP: Your diversity really shows itself in the fact that you photographed Justin Bieber and the Pope.
Ladefoged: Justin Bieber wasn’t interested in being photographed at all. I was told that in addition to shooting the concert, I could have full backstage access. When I got there, they said I couldn’t go into his dressing room where he stayed 95 percent of the time. Besides to go on stage, the two times he left the dressing room was to eat, and he said, "No pictures while I’m eating," and then to do a meet-and-greet with his fans where I was allowed to take a few pictures of him standing with some girls. I then had to do a quick interview with him for a video with the question who he thought was the most influential person of the year. He didn’t want to do it, so I had to call TIME and tell them. They called his people and said he had to do it, so he did. When I turned on my 5D Mark II to record video, I have never seen anyone more professional than him. He was unbelievable in front of the camera. I was shocked. He wasn’t standing in a good place for the light. I stopped him and said, "I’m sorry, the light’s not good there. Can you move one step forward?" He said, "I’m a one-take guy." I showed him on the camera what it looked like, so he moved one step forward and did it again. He was even better the second time. He was unbelievable in front of the camera. After he finished the last sentence, he turned around, opened the door and yelled, "I’m out!" But he performed and was perfect. I recorded the sound with a RØDE mic plugged into the camera. More assignments like this are coming in requesting some video coverage as well.
DPP: I hope you didn’t get the same reaction photographing the Pope.
Ladefoged: I didn’t. The assignment was to follow the Pope during his visit to the U.S. I was at the White House with a hundred other photographers. We knew he would be walking from one part of the White House to the Oval Office. Then we went into the Oval Office in shifts of seven photographers at a time. I think I had three frames of President Bush and the Pope. Then we had to move on.
I shoot sports, I shoot portraits, I shoot reportage, I shoot advertising assignments, I shoot my little art stories. I’m working on an art book with the working title Time After My Time. I visit the places I lived as a child and take pictures of people living in my old room and homes. I go to my old soccer fields and take pictures of that at night. I went to my kindergarten and did a still life of a three-wheeled bike.
DPP: Sometimes "pure" photojournalists take exception to photographers who do reportage and more commercial or fine-art work. Life is diverse, so why shouldn’t we be able to be a part of that?
Ladefoged: People ask me how can I shoot an advertisement for Gatorade with 15 people in my crew, then in the West Bank, then a portrait for TIME magazine. I try to keep my ethics high. We’re living in a different time. Styles are merging. Art photographers are sometimes shooting in a more photojournalistic style.
Documentary photographers are doing portraits. The commercial world sees that the honesty and realism in photojournalism is something they need right now. People are fed up with superficial commercial work. They want more reality. "Can we believe in these pictures of this happy couple sitting in their living room drinking coffee?" I’m a photographer. I can put on different hats.